Thursday, December 16, 2021

Book Report

      Wrapped up It Can't Happen Here yesterday and on the whole, I was impressed.  Writing in 1935, Sinclair Lewis foresaw the broad outline of what authoritarian klepocracy would get up to, including a version of concentration camps that errs only in being a bit less terrible then the reality.

      It is a book worth reading.

      The author's own politics appear to show up, briefly, near the very end of the book when the, um, not exactly a hero but far-less-bad side's leader speaks to an industrial magnate, and, hey-la, it's about as half-baked as most new-and-different 1935 political theorizing.  To Lewis's credit, it's not essential to the book, in which a very broad ideological front is opposing the baddies; broad but not universal: home-grown communists show up here and there in the book, just as dogmatic and narrow as any modern-day Internet tankie, and are left out of the resistance by their own choice.

      Knowing the names and notions circulating at the time the book was written is helpful -- FDR sails off into exile, while Garrett Garet and Upton Sinclair are both clapped into the camps, and if you don't know who they are, you'll miss why that is of note.  (Hard Times, Studs Terkel's remarkably even-handed oral history of the Great Depression across a wide range of politics and personalities, is helpful and fascinating background.)

      The book ends with an embattled, divided U.S., dropping into near-warlordism, and while there is some reason to hope, things are not looking great in the short term.

      The book's basic premise for the refashioning of the Federal government is shaky, especially in the details; there's no Constitutional basis for it.  On the other hand, Andrew Jackson's ignoring of a U.S. Supreme Court decision (and his generally flexible regard for Constitutional limits on Executive power) sets a precedent that is difficult to ignore.

      A vulnerability that existed unknown in 1935 and which has only partially been addressed even now is that Presidential succession and Continuity of Government is not as straightforward as Civics class may have made it appear, especially as it devolves past the Vice President.  The Daybreak trilogy explores one set of possible bad outcomes in some detail, and I continue to recommend it as entertaining food for thought.  The  high-concept take is, there are ways in which who's supposed to be in charge can become badly tangled, with no clear path out.

      Clumsy as it is, non-ideal as it is, unhappy as about half of us are with it at any given moment, the Federal government of the United States is an uncommon thing, a democratic republic with hard limits on its powers (and yes, a dire tendency to nibble away at those limits).  Once broken, it would be extraordinarily difficult to replace -- and the alternatives running nation-states of comparable size and population elsewhere are all far uglier.

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